Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Sacred Geography: Definitions

The central concern of this module is the analysis of sacred geography: its construction, its operations, and its interactions with physical geography. The latter spatial form is certainly not fixed or closed to redefinition. People apply different, often competing, meanings to discrete chunks of physical topography—that is they territorialize space—and they radically transform the appearance and composition of their environments. Even mountains and oceans change, seemingly of their own accord, across Braudel’s longue durée. Nevertheless, physical geography is susceptible to mapping by the tools of modern cartography. We can plot specific places and represent topography on maps, and use those maps to get from place to place. In contrast, we cannot precisely map the features and boundaries of sacred geography, or apply the tools of GIS systems to it, because it mostly lacks tangible forms and the coordinates of latitude and longitude. With physical geography, we can measure distance and area, and use those criteria to distinguish between different scales of territories, such as town, city, state, country, and continent. Or we can use ideas of time to measure changes in physical spaces and places. We can also build place-based identities—local, national, regional—that we associate with these different scales. We cannot carry out these actions with sacred geography, which is flat in the sense that distance, area, elevation, and time have no meaning there. Therefore, place as a “particular expression of geographical space” (Bodenhamer, 14) does not easily exist in sacred geography.

But I have framed these definitions in the negative, in terms of what it is not. What is sacred geography? It is a type of imaginative geography, both in the sense that it is a spatiality that we can represent but not actually see, and in the sense of a spatiality that people construct as they assert, or attempt to assert, power. Societies create sacred geography, or sacred space, as the territory affiliated with the divine—deities, ancestors, cosmological forces—and imbue it with an existence that is separate from, but intimately connected to, our own world. They construct it as indeterminate, a form of territory that exists both nowhere and, potentially, everywhere. In this regard, because we can tell stories about sacred space, we can also transform it into place and link our identities to particular cosmologies and religions. Moreover, the ability to determine how sacred and physical geographies intersect depends upon whether or not a socio-political group holds sufficient power to assert its spiritual beliefs within specific territories, particularly in the face of counter efforts by other socio-political groups. In this module, readers will see numerous examples of competition around two main points of intersection: the temples that Jilong’s residents built (especially as Taiwanese renovated their temples and Japanese took over and reconsecrated Taiwanese temples), and the festivals that they held in honor of the deities enshrined in those institutions.

Although sacred geography is a human construct, societies have imbued it with its own organizing logics and with powers to shape human affairs. For both the islander/Taiwanese and the Japanese in Taiwan, the most important of these logics were hierarchy, functionality, and socio-cultural specificity. Deities held specific ranks in terms of their importance and power, and they were responsible for certain aspects of human activity or natural phenomena, but only in regards to the social and territorial groups with which they were affiliated. Therefore, sacred space does not simply exist, it also acts upon the physical world and its residents, and it imparts meanings to the territories with which it is associated. The following pages explore representations and architectures of sacred geography, and the everyday practices through which people create pathways that allow the divine to manifest within and affect the physical world.

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